The Code Violation System
Yamiche Alcindor is on the team of Times reporters looking into the aftermath of the fire.
On Wednesday, I set off to find out more about Oakland’s fire inspection codes, which have become a major focus since the fire.
Topping the list of people to contact was Zac Unger, vice president of Local 55, the Oakland firefighters union, who had told several news outlets that the Fire Department had suffered from mismanagement. After playing phone tag for part of the morning, Mr. Unger spoke with me for about half an hour and laid out what he said were years of problems in the department.
Specifically, Mr. Unger said he had complained regularly to city officials, telling them that the city does not have enough fire inspectors and that its Fire Department lacks proper resources. Mr. Unger also said he had openly criticized Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed for going several years without having a fire marshal to oversee whether the city was inspecting the proper number of buildings and potentially hazardous spaces.
“I said specifically the mismanagement of the Fire Department is going to lead to a tragedy and you need to do something about it now, and I am heartbroken to have been proven right and to have all of these people dead,” Mr. Unger said.
Still, it is too early to say if city officials could have done more to prevent the fire. Officials have not said how many times fire inspectors visited the Ghost Ship to check for fire hazards, or if city code inspectors ever flagged the building as being used for something other than its zoned purpose. (I am awaiting a response from the fire chief and other city officials.)
Sgt. Barry Donelan, the president of the Oakland Police Officers’ Association, said it was “ridiculous” to expect police officers responding to emergencies to also determine if the buildings they enter have dangerous living conditions. “My guys are trying to get out there and protect our community,” he said. “They are going to do their duties. But you can’t be effective in arrests and imposing building codes. That’s ludicrous.”
He added that in their reports, officers focus on crimes like robberies or domestic violence, and don’t scour residences for code violations. He said he wasn’t sure how many times officers had visited the Ghost Ship.
The warehouse was run by a married couple, Derick Ion Almena — also known as Derick Ion — and Micah Allison, whom residents described as the “master tenants” who rented the building and sublet parts of it to others.
The building was owned by Chor Nar Siu Ng, who also owns several other Oakland properties. Current and former tenants have told my colleagues that when Ms. Ng or her daughter came by, Mr. Almena and Ms. Allison told tenants to pack away bedding and cooking supplies.
According to a 2014 report by an Alameda County grand jury that investigated the Oakland Fire Department’s efforts to inspect commercial buildings, fire inspections were usually “conducted on a block-by-block basis and initiated” by the department. California law also mandates that commercial properties be inspected annually. But that same 2014 report found that 4,000 buildings were not inspected because of “competing” priorities.
According to its records, Oakland’s Planning and Building Department has not had an inspector inside the Ghost Ship in the last 30 years, Darin Ranelletti, the department’s interim director, said Wednesday. “That means that we had no applications for permits in the last 30 years and there were no violations that were submitted for interior work within the main building attributed to that street address,” he said.